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Leon Festinger - Introduces theory of cognitive dissonance, Continues research at the New School

people tasks stanford conflict

1919-1989
American psychologist who developed the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Many people know that cigarettes cause cancer and other diseases, but nonetheless continue to smoke. This is an example of what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance—the idea that when conflict arises in one's belief system, the resulting tension must be eliminated. People going through cognitive dissonance will find some rationale for whatever is causing the conflict, or they may choose to ignore the event in question altogether. Festinger believed that people want balance in their lives and that cognitive dissonance was a way to bring back a lost sense of balance.

Festinger was born in New York City, on May 8, 1919, to Alex Festinger and Sara Solomon. Interested in science at a young age, he decided to pursue a career in psychology. He received his bachelor's degree from City College of New York and went on to Iowa State University for his master's degree and his Ph.D. (which he received in 1942). For the next several years he made his living teaching at different universities until he went to Stanford in 1955.

Introduces theory of cognitive dissonance

At Stanford, Festinger began to fully develop the idea he called cognitive dissonance. The original idea stemmed from his observation that people generally liked consistency in their daily lives. For example, some individuals always sit in the same seat on the train or bus when they commute to work, or always eat lunch in the same restaurant. Cognitive dissonance is a part of this need for consistence. Essentially, Festinger explained, all people hold certain beliefs, and when they are asked to do something that runs counter to their beliefs, conflict arises. Cognitive dissonance comes into play when people try to reconcile the conflicting behaviors or ideas.

Festinger's research resulted in a number of interesting findings. One was that the level of cognitive dissonance would decrease as the incentive to comply with the conflict situation was increased. The reason was simple: where an incentive was involved, people felt less conflict. Festinger and his associates conducted a simple experiment to prove this point. College students were asked to perform a series of repetitive menial tasks for a specified period of time. As they finished, they were instructed that they had to inform the next group of students that the tasks had been enjoyable and interesting. Later, the subjects were asked to describe their true feelings about the task. Half the group was offered a $1 bill; the rest were offered a $20 bill. Subjects were asked afterward whether they really did find the tasks enjoyable. Interestingly, the students who had been paid one dollar stated that they actually did find the tasks enjoyable. There was little or no dissonance among the students who had been paid the $20, since, after all, they were well rewarded for their participation. The other students, however, had to justify having spent time doing useless tasks and getting only a dollar as a reward. They were the ones who were in a state of cognitive dissonance. By convincing themselves that the tasks they performed were not all that boring, they could rationalize having gone through what was essentially a waste of their time.

Cognitive dissonance soon became an important and much-discussed theory. Over the years it has generated considerable research, in part because it is one of a number of theories based on the idea that consistency of thought is a strong motivating factor in people.

Continues research at the New School

Festinger continued his work at Stanford until 1968 when he returned to New York City to assume the Else and Hans Staudinger professorship at the New School for Social Research. He continued his research on cognitive dissonance as well as other behavioral issues. He was also active in professional organizations including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He continued to work until his death on February 11, 1989, from liver cancer. He was survived by his wife Trudy and four children.

George A. Milite

Further Reading

Festinger, Leon. The human legacy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Festinger, Leon. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.

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